Never before has the phrase ‘not at the races’ ever been more appropriate in relation to our football team.
‘It’s men against boys’ said the completely apathetic gentlemen sitting behind me in the Wheatfield Stand on the half-hour mark. At that moment I had his words spelled out in my head as ‘men against Bhoys’ as a direct nod to the nickname of our opponents today, but in reality for us Hearts supporters, the slightly clumsy looking ‘mhen against boys’ would really have been more apt.
Seriously, that was as big a doing as I’ve seen Hearts getting in a LONG time, probably even before Vladimir Romanov came to the club in actual fact. It may only have ended up 2-0, but that’s merely a statistic – the fact is that Hearts were bossed out of the game completely during the time that really counted, and in all areas they were found wanting in a big way.
The most disappointing aspect for me is that although we can accept that Celtic are technically superior due to the money they’ve had to invest in their squad, Hearts also seemed to be well short of the required level of fitness and physical prowess in comparison to their opponents. How many times did we see a Hearts player simply bouncing off his hoops-clad counterpart? And how many times did one of our players concede literally yards to an opponent due to a significant difference in physical fitness and speed? Quite a lot would have to be the truthful response to both questions, and this is surely unacceptable – if anything teams who are technically inferior should be focusing MORE on this side of the game, as it’s the one area that if applied correctly can give them a chance, but the whole Hearts team looked worryingly laboured this afternoon, and that’s a real issue for Csaba and co.
I suppose we really should have seen this coming, as although Hearts had played well in spells in their last two matches, the last time that they came up against a side who were half-decent at pressing the game and making their physical presence felt, they were similarly put away. That was when Kilmarnock were in town, and although Jim Jefferies’ side don’t have the individually talented footballers that Gordon Strachan has at his disposal, the principals of their gameplan were very much the same – and this has to be THE main area of focus for Csaba Laszlo and co if they want to turn Hearts back into a serious force again.
Having said all this, we should acknowledge that things got off the worst possible start for a side looking to contain one of the Old Firm sides. Generally speaking it’s important to start these matches well, but Celtic came racing out of the blocks and were ahead within seven minutes.
The danger looked to have been cleared when home ‘keeper Janos Balogh came out to the penalty spot to decisively punch clear a cross from the right wing, but when the ball dropped to Shaun Maloney fully 35 yards from goal, the little midfielder cracked a sweet first-time half-volley back over the pack of players in the penalty area, including the forlorn figure of Balogh, and straight into the net. A great opportunist strike by Maloney, but although his initial punch was good, perhaps question marks could be placed over Balogh for the time it took for him to get to his feet – if he’d reacted quicker then the resultant shot really would have been a routine save for him.
From this point on it was always going to be difficult for Hearts, and if truth be told they struggled to even string two passes together let alone create chances, such was the effectiveness of the pressing game being employed by their opponents.
The only real talking point for Hearts in an attacking sense came when they were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Celtic penalty area with the score still at 1-0. Two things annoyed me about this incident: firstly, by the time Bruno Aguiar’s foot made contact with ball, the Celtic wall were practically right in his face around three or four yards from the ball; secondly, when the ball actually got past a couple of them, it was then clearly handled inside the area by one of the defenders (couldn’t make out who the player was), who looked as though he almost caught the thing! It was another of those bottling situations that you get in matches against the Old Firm, and perhaps if the penalty had been awarded then things could have turned out differently, even if I do doubt that very much given the gulf in class between the sides today.
After that the writing was on the wall and before long it was 2-0. A dangerous Hartley corner was flicked on by McDonald inside the six yard area and with Balogh flapping all over the place, Gary Caldwell was somehow allowed to bundle the ball over the line. Exceptionally poor defending from Hearts, and our moods weren’t improved much with Caldwell’s rather inciteful celebrations! As usual though, nothing was done about the latter.
Celtic then appeared to relax a little and Hearts had slightly more possession of the ball, but to be honest they did very little with it, and with both wingers Cesnauskis and Driver having to track back very deep, any time they did get the ball in good positions the lack of support for lone striker Christian Nade dictated that most Hearts attacks were over before they began, as it simply took too long for any assistance to arrive.
Half time 0-2.
If the match wasn’t already over as a contest, it most certainly was just five minutes into the half when Marius Zaliukas was red-carded for a ‘last man’ tackle on Scott McDonald. I’d need to see the incident again and I thought the Celtic player looked suspiciously offside, but once he was goal-side of Zaliukas he looked to be clearly tugged back by the defender, and the referee was left with little option but to send him off given his central position. The only other niggle of doubt I’d have here was whether or not the challenge was actually inside the penalty area though – Thompson ruled that it was and awarded the spot-kick of course, but it did look like a pretty close call. Another one for the TV cameras to prove one way or the other I’d say.
Former Jambo Paul Hartley, such an expert from the penalty spot during his time with Hearts, then proceeded to take one of the worst penalties I’ve seen in quite a while when he hit his shot wide of Balogh’s right hand post. This prompted the biggest cheer of the afternoon from the home support, with the subsequently ironic chant of ‘one Paul Hartley’ giving us at least something to smile about for our troubles!
By this stage the match was finished, despite the fact that there was more than half an hour of play left. Celtic had clearly taken their foot off the gas knowing that their job had been done, and although Hearts did play better in that time, they were still unable to seriously threaten Artur Boruc or his central defenders.
The only Hearts players that I thought were really doing anything productive at all out there in an attacking sense were Mikoliunas, who had come on late in the first half for the totally ineffectual Cesnauskis, and Christian Nade who was once again given the thankless task of playing as the lone striker.
That view was clearly shared by the majority of the stadium if the reaction to the news of Nade’s substitution was anything to go by. Seriously, this had shades of Stevie Frail written all over it – we’re 2-0 down in desperate search of inspiration and who does Csaba take off to make way for Jamie Mole? Nade – the only striker we have on the park and the only guy in the final third looking capable of doing anything. A bizarre decision to the say the least, and a bit of an insult to the fans in all honesty.
The final straw came for me when Bruno Aguiar was then taken off with ten minutes to go. Yes Bruno is probably due a rest given his schedule since returning from injury, but Michael Stewart was clearly the man who needed to come off – the guy was breathing out of his backside after half an hour, yet managed to outlast both Nade and Aguiar, both of whom were still offering infinitely more to the cause when they were taken off than Stewart did at any point this afternoon. I’ll certainly be all ears when Csaba explains these decisions to the press tomorrow.
So….if we needed a true wake-up call to let us know exactly how far short of the required standard that this Hearts team currently are, then we most certainly don’t now. That was a real lesson for our team today, and I seriously do hope that they can be quick learners, as that’s twice now that teams have come to our ground and bullied us off the field with pretty minimal fuss.
‘Could do better’? Oh yes…..
In all honesty for all Celtic’s superiority he was rarely tested, but for me should have done better for the second goal and did look a little slow to react at the first.
Given a really tough time out there by players who were technically and physically stronger. He even bounced off Maloney a couple of times for goodness sake!
Difficult afternoon too, although to be fair did have a couple of decent bursts forward in support of Driver. Still think if he’s got to get a game, it should be in midfield and not at full-back.
Did reasonably well considering the doing that Hearts were getting. Helpded to keep McDonald reasonably quiet, but found the other lad Sheridan a handful.
Had his worst game of the season for me. Found Sheridan a real handful and at times looked really laboured. Sent off after 50 minutes after getting on the wrong side of McDonald.
We praised him earlier in the week, but he was completely out-muscled and overrun today. Better when moved into defence, which is his best position, but by that time Celtic were barely interested.
A waste of a jersey. Subbed before half-time.
Struggled to get into the game, although to be fair did manage to win a few free-kicks in dangerous areas. Generally the midfield were completely overrun though, which made opportunities for him to get into the game very few and far between.
Had a real off-day. Looked as though he’d been in the pub until the early hours!
Huffed and puffed and probably would have been dangerous had he ever gotten the ball in dangerous areas, but due to Celtic’s pressing game he spent most of his time defending.
Did well considering the lack of service he received, and was very unfortunatel to be substituted.
Showed the sort of attitude and application that so many others around him were lacking. Got in behind the full-back a couple of times and generally did pretty well.
Offered very little, although playing him on his own up front only continues to make the guy look worse than he really is in my opinion.
No idea – left as soon as he was brought on!